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School buses need arm of law at stops

A Times Editorial
Published October 26, 2006


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Considering all the publicity that surrounded the deaths and injuries of children disembarking from school buses in Pinellas County in recent years, it is appalling that motorists still pass stopped school buses.

But they do it with abandon, and in such numbers this year that Pinellas bus drivers, principals and parents have sounded the alarm and urged law enforcement officials to do something, fast, about the flagrant violations before a child is run over.

The Tarpon Springs Police Department responded with a great idea. It put Police Department personnel equipped with video cameras on the bus, with the children.

As the bus rolls to school, the cameras are rolling, too. If a motorist passes the stopped bus, the infraction is caught on video and nearby officers in unmarked cars stop the violator to deliver a ticket that carries a fine of $157.50 and racks up four points on the driver's license.

The fine is too low considering the danger in which such thoughtless motorists place children.

It is difficult to miss a stopped school bus. Warning lights flash and an arm that says STOP extends from the side of the bus.

Florida law states that when the stop arm is extended, motorists must stop and stay stopped until the stop arm is withdrawn, whether they are traveling behind the bus or approaching it from the opposite direction.

The same law states that if you are approaching a school bus from the opposite direction on a roadway divided by a raised median or an unpaved space of 5 feet or wider, you don't have to stop when the bus stops. However, even on divided roads, vehicles traveling behind the bus must stop and stay stopped until the stop arm is withdrawn.

The purpose of the law is to ensure that children have a safe pathway to travel when they are leaving or approaching the bus. Children don't always look out for their own safety, no matter how often they are told to look both ways before stepping into the roadway. Motorists traveling on the road bear that burden of responsibility.

Yet some motorists apparently believe that their own schedules trump the responsibility for ensuring that children can enter and exit school buses safely.

The enforcement technique used by the Tarpon Springs Police Department - and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office assisted with this week's operation - has been used elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. The Clearwater Police Department, for example, tried using police volunteers on school buses in the late 1990s when violations were soaring.

However, the department did not have enough interested volunteers to continue that part of the program, and instead had to rely on the traditional technique of stationing officers near bus stops and watching for violators. That can be less than productive because of Pinellas' congested roads.

Every law enforcement agency in Pinellas should be thinking about ways to inform and educate motorists about the law and catch those who refuse to abide by it.

Congratulations to the Tarpon police for tackling the task creatively.

[Last modified October 25, 2006, 22:57:37]


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